Reputation as a measure of success

I prefer definitions of success that don't involve exclusivity. The problem with exclusivity is that it doesn't scale. When success is defined as being "the best in the world", for example, the number of successful people is limited by the number of categories in which one can be "the best in the world". Many companies thus present themselves as "the global leader" in whatever absurd bombastic-sounding niche they dream up for themselves. In addition, exclusivity is ethically questionable - in the words of Scatman John, "how can someone win when winning means that someone loses?".

I believe everyone deserves the confidence and satisfaction that comes with success. Definitions that don't require excluding anyone are preferable from this point of view. For a business, "being profitable" may be one such definition of success. "Growing consistently" may be another one, although growth does become exclusive once a market matures.

The other extreme - feel-good notions of "success" that don't require any effort - is even more problematic. Slight positive bias in one's self image is said to help achieve goals but the goals have to be there in the first place. (Interesting aside: does presence of goals indicate absence of success? Is success a state or a process? Why do we want to succeed, anyway?)

I became aware of these issues quite early in my youth and decided my definition of career success would be "achieving respect in a community of competent professionals". This was before the Internet. I can now say I've been achieving this success through most of my career if the "community" is defined as one's workplace and its circle of competent professionals.

That's no longer enough. For years, I have been standing on the sidelines of the great community that is the Internet. I would love to achieve a measure of respect there but it's quite scary. As the Red Woman says, the Net is vast and full of strangers, many of them jerks or worse. Even the sub-Internet of "competent software development professionals" is vast and full of strangers, many of them jerks or worse.

This brings up an awkward fact: when a community becomes large enough, respect of peers becomes exclusive. Respecting someone requires being aware of their existence, achievements and other attributes. Awareness is a limited resource. In my team at work there are so few of us we can comfortably judge each other's competence and award respect to everyone who deserves it. On the internet, however, I compete for the respect of my peers just as they compete for mine.

What to do about this? It's obvious that my youthful definition of success was flawed as it didn't correspond to my own ethics. I need to formulate another definition fully immune from exclusion. Perhaps something like "creating works of high quality useful to customers and delightful to users", as mundane as that sounds. (Of course, the previous definition did mention "works of high quality" between the lines: it spoke of "competent professionals" rather than "gullible fools".)

Having said that, my craving for "respect" doesn't feel like a symptom of vanity. I'd say it reflects a pretty basic human need for acceptance within the group I identify with. When such acceptance is a scarcity I can either give up on being accepted, pursue the acceptance to the exclusion of others or choose a different, smaller community to participate in. I don't feel like giving up but both of the other options involve, well, talking to strangers. Oh my...

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